Vanderbilt did everything it could to upset 13th-ranked Tennessee – except take the lead.
The Commodores all but erased a 19-point, first-half deficit and had five second-half possessions when it could have taken the lead but failed to do so. It proved costly as the second-seeded Lady Vols pulled away for a 68-57 victory on Friday in the quarterfinals of the SEC Women’s Tournament at Bridgestone Arena.
The loss marked the first time Vanderbilt (22-9) failed to reach the semifinals since 2006. Tennessee (22-8) advanced to play Georgia or South Carolina in a semifinal on Saturday (5 p.m., ESPNU).
“We had every opportunity down the stretch,” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. “We played hard, fought hard. We made good adjustments. We just didn’t make the plays. ... Shots didn’t go in.”
Trailing 45-44 with more than 10 minutes left, Jasmine Lister missed a reverse layup that would have given Vanderbilt (22-9) its first lead since the 17:42 mark of the first half. That was the Commodores’ last chance as Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson combined for Tennessee’s final 25 points.
“Getting the lead would have been a huge momentum burst for us,” center Stephanie Holzer said. “But our play doesn’t solely rest on those possessions.”
Vanderbilt dug a hole by missing 11 straight shots and its first eight 3-pointers, falling behind 32-13 with 3:44 left. The Commodores matched a season-low with seven field goals (out of 26) in the half, but three came in the last 3:23 and contributed to a 14-3 run that led into halftime.
Lister’s 3-pointer sparked the spurt, which was aided by six free throws. Christina Foggie’s 3-pointer and Kady Schrann’s jumper with 20 seconds left cut it to 35-27 at the break.
A 30-minute delay at halftime for the severe weather that ripped through the area didn’t slow down the Commodores, who split the regular-season series with Tennessee. They came out of the break with more of an emphasis on attacking the inside and breaking Tennessee’s 2-3 zone defense.
Vanderbilt scored 13 of the half’s first 19 points and a Holzer jumper at the 14:09 mark made it a one-point game, 41-40.
But it came away empty-handed on its next four possessions: Schrann missed a 3-pointer; Foggie’s driving layup was blocked and Tiffany Clarke traveled after grabbing the offensive rebound; Foggie and Holzer both missed contested layups on the same possession before Clarke again traveled. On the fourth possession, Foggie’s errant pass went into the hands of Kamiko Williams, who sunk a pull-up jumper for a 43-40 lead with 11:43 left.
“I think it always makes a difference if you could break through,” Balcomb said. “There were a couple, probably three possessions in a row, that I thought we had a good chance of scoring. It got very physical but we did not finish.”
After the teams exchanged baskets, Schrann hit two free throws and followed it with a steal. But Lister’s layup attempt was blocked by the rim. On the next possession, Stricklen knocked down the first of three 3-pointers. The treys twice gave Tennessee a nine-point lead, the last coming with 3:03 left and all but sending Vanderbilt home early. Stricklen scored all of her game-high 18 points in the second half, with the last 16 coming in the final 9:43.
“If you see me play, I’m a streaky shooter,” Stricklen said. “I hit one and I really feel like I am going to hit the next one and the next one.”
Foggie had a team-high 16 points and Lister added 12. The duo missed 13 of 17 3-point attempts combined. Holzer had her second straight double-double and 12 th of her career as she scored 12 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
Johnson scored nine of her 15 points in the final 11:04 for Tennessee. Meighan Simmons chipped in 11 points off the bench.
Vanderbilt now has two weeks off before its next game. With 20-plus wins and a RPI of 25, the Commodores appear to be a lock for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. They won’t have to leave campus as Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium will host the opening two rounds on March 18 and 20.
“We know we have the best ahead of us,” Foggie said. “We’re very confident in each other and trust each other. We’re in a good spot right now.”